Tokyo Report

US–China Talks and the Chinese Reaction

The two sides had very different takes on what was said.

US–China Talks and the Chinese Reaction
Credit: AP Photo/Lintao Zhang, Pool, File

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke via telephone over the Chinese New Year, while the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi did the same. It is unclear what the actual exchanges consisted of, but the statements subsequently released by the two superpowers are far too disparate. Let’s talk a look at the differences and what they might signify.

On February 6, the U.S. Department of State had the following to say about the call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and State Councilor Yang Jiechi: “Blinken stressed the United States will continue to stand up for human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and pressed China to join the international community in condemning the military coup in Burma.” This has to do with values and suggests that the Biden administration will maintain the Trump administration’s tough stance on China. Meanwhile, with regard to security, Antony Blinken said that, “The Secretary reaffirmed that the United States will work together with its allies and partners in defense of our shared values and interests to hold the PRC accountable for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system.”

The Chinese official announcement made no mention of any such concerns, but simply stated that, “the U.S. side will continue to pursue the one-China principle and abide by the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques, and this policy stance has not changed.” It went on to explain that the U.S. would maintain past joint communiques, starting with the “One China principle,” meaning that the US is to maintain its “One-China policy.” This is not in the American record. Based on the Chinese announcement, some media outlets in Japan have reported that the U.S. also confirmed and followed the One-China policy.

While the content of the Blinken–Yang conversation as announced by the Americans was concise, the Chinese provided much more detail. In particular, many remarks by Yang Jiechi were cited. The main point was that the Chinese asked the Americans to verify a “new type of major country relations.” This reflects the Chinese position that this new type of major country relations was something Xi had proposed to former U.S. President Barack Obama, which Obama accepted as the basis for U.S.–China relations. The Chinese record states that, “China urges the United States to rectify its mistakes made over a period of time and work with China to uphold the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation and manage differences, so as to push forward the healthy and stable development of bilateral relations.” This is a stock phrase that China uses for its concept of the new type of major country relations.

Yang went on to say, “The two sides should respect each other’s core interests and choices of political system and development path, and manage their domestic affairs well.” These words are likewise linked to the new type of major country relations. Yang then said that China is walking a path of socialism with Chinese characteristics and that nobody can stop it. This new kind of relationship, which Xi explained in person during the then Vice President Biden’s visit to China, was damaged by the Trump administration. We should assume that Yang is trying to revive it with the Biden administration. However, there is no indication at present that the Americans are willing to do that.

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Moreover, Yang spoke about the Taiwan issue, saying that it was “the most important and sensitive core issue in China-U.S. relations (and) bears on China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He also called on the U.S. to respect the One-China principle and the three joint communiques, and to be careful with regard to matters pertaining to Chinese core interests. He also remarked that, “Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet-related affairs are all China’s internal affairs and allow (for) no interference by any external forces.” In other words, according to Yang, America’s stance amounts to interference in China’s internal affairs.

What is interesting here is that Yang mentioned the Myanmar coup. According to China’s statements, he “urged the U.S. side to play a constructive role in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. He reiterated China’s position on the current situation in Myanmar, stressing that the international community should create an enabling external environment for the proper settlement of the Myanmar issue.”

Common to both sides’ announcements are the references to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet-related affairs and this Myanmar issue. Although other remarks may have been one-way, the antagonism is clear. The Chinese side also claims that it conveyed the Xi administration’s basic foreign policy, which is that China will pursue its own UN-centered diplomacy as well as the international order that has been held up by that same UN.

So, what about the telephone talk between Biden and Xi on February 10? Biden’s remarks fundamentally overlap with those of Blinken. For example, “President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific.” He also voiced similar concerns about China, as “President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about ‘Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan.’” Excepting the Myanmar issue, it is on the same level as what Blinken said, but it is very significant that he explicitly mentioned the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and other issues where there is disagreement with China. This is because the Chinese wanted to use the shift from the Trump administration to the Biden administration to improve relations.

Biden identified safety in global health, climate change, and arms non-proliferation as challenges that may be shared with China, but refrained from saying “cooperation” directly, instead expressing the hope that the two superpowers engage in something with more concrete contents, accompanied by results.

By contrast, in the Chinese official announcement, there was no mention of the various concerns and reservations expressed by Biden. This could be seen as a move to avoid giving the Chinese population the impression that U.S.–China relations will remain difficult. It speaks to a disparity between Chinese domestic perceptions and reality. This disparity will manifest as an explosion of strong popular discontent when reality eventually becomes evident in Chinese society. The Chinese government will be sure to keep adhering to discourse of American liability so that the discontent does not target the Chinese government.

What is Xi supposed to have told Biden? Much the same as Yang’s remarks, according to the official Chinese take. Namely, statements along the lines of good U.S.–China relations having a positive effect on the world, the “present” of U.S.–China relations being the key to the future, and both countries needing to abide by this principle of the “new type of major country relations.” Xi is also to have said that since Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet-related affairs are Chinese internal affairs and pertain to Chinese core interests, the U.S. should be careful when addressing such matters. Xi said that the U.S. and China should avoid confrontation and work together on problems like climate change.

There were noticeable and fundamental differences and discrepancies with both telephone talks. Taiwan, Hong, and Xinjiang were points of contention, while climate change was an area where cooperation may be possible. The question remains though: What might be the ultimate outcome of China’s refusal to tell its people about these differences and discrepancies?

Shin Kawashima is a professor at the University of Tokyo.